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1/4/2017 Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science

Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science


TatsuyaAmano , JuanP.GonzlezVaro, WilliamJ.Sutherland

Published:December29,2016 http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933

Abstract
Whileitisrecognizedthatlanguagecanposeabarriertothetransferofscientificknowledge,theconvergenceonEnglishasthe
globallanguageofsciencemaysuggestthatthisproblemhasbeenresolved.However,oursurveysearchingGoogleScholarin16
languagesrevealedthat35.6%of75,513scientificdocumentsonbiodiversityconservationpublishedin2014werenotinEnglish.
IgnoringsuchnonEnglishknowledgecancausebiasesinourunderstandingofstudysystems.Furthermore,aspublicationin
Englishhasbecomeprevalent,scientificknowledgeisoftenunavailableinlocallanguages.Thishindersitsusebyfield
practitionersandpolicymakersforlocalenvironmentalissues54%ofprotectedareadirectorsinSpainidentifiedlanguagesasa
barrier.Weurgescientificcommunitiestomakeamoreconcertedefforttotacklethisproblemandproposepotentialapproaches
bothforcompilingnonEnglishscientificknowledgeeffectivelyandforenhancingthemultilingualizationofnewandexisting
knowledgeavailableonlyinEnglishfortheusersofsuchknowledge.

Citation:AmanoT,GonzlezVaroJP,SutherlandWJ(2016)LanguagesAreStillaMajorBarriertoGlobalScience.PLoS
Biol14(12):e2000933.doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933

Published:December29,2016

Copyright:2016Amanoetal.ThisisanopenaccessarticledistributedunderthetermsoftheCreativeCommons
AttributionLicense,whichpermitsunrestricteduse,distribution,andreproductioninanymedium,providedtheoriginalauthor
andsourcearecredited.

Funding:EuropeanCommissionsMarieCurieInternationalIncomingFellowshipProgramme(grantnumberPIIFGA2011
303221).ReceivedbyTA.Thefunderhadnoroleinstudydesign,datacollectionandanalysis,decisiontopublish,or
preparationofthemanuscript.EuropeanCommission'sMarieSklodowskaCurieActions(grantnumberH2020MSCAIF
2014656572).ReceivedbyJPGV.Thefunderhadnoroleinstudydesign,datacollectionandanalysis,decisiontopublish,
orpreparationofthemanuscript.IsaacNewtonTrust(grantnumber15.23(s)).ReceivedbyTAandWJS.Thefunderhadno
roleinstudydesign,datacollectionandanalysis,decisiontopublish,orpreparationofthemanuscript.ArcadiaFund.
ReceivedbyWJS.Thefunderhadnoroleinstudydesign,datacollectionandanalysis,decisiontopublish,orpreparationof
themanuscript.GranthamFoundationfortheProtectionoftheEnvironment.ReceivedbyTA.Thefunderhadnoroleinstudy
design,datacollectionandanalysis,decisiontopublish,orpreparationofthemanuscript.

Competinginterests:Theauthorshavedeclaredthatnocompetinginterestsexist.

Abbreviations:IPBES,IntergovernmentalPlatformonBiodiversityandEcosystemServices

Provenance:Notcommissionedexternallypeerreviewed.

Englishisobviouslythelanguagethatcurrentlydominatesglobalscientificactivitiesasalinguafranca[1].Locally,however,many
scientistsandusersofscientificinformation,suchaspolicymakers,communicateonadailybasisinlanguagesotherthanEnglish,
whichinevitablycreatesbarrierstothetransferofknowledgebetweencommunities[2,3].However,themagnitudeofthisproblem
isnotwellquantified,andtheconsequencesandsolutionsdeservefurtherexploration.Languagebarriersmaybeaparticularly
seriousprobleminsubjectsinwhichlocalknowledgeisespeciallyimportant,suchasenvironmentalsciencesrequiredfor
biodiversityconservation[4].Languagescanseriouslylimitthetransferofknowledgeinenvironmentalsciencesintwodirections:
whencompilingscientificknowledgeforexample,inglobalassessments,suchasthosebytheIntergovernmentalPlatformon
BiodiversityandEcosystemServices(IPBES)andwhenapplyingknowledgetolocalenvironmentalissues,oftentackledbyfield
practitionersandlocalpolicymakers.Focusingonenvironmentalsciencesasanexample,wehereinvestigatethepotentialextent
andconsequencesoflanguagebarriersinthetwodirectionsandproposesolutionsforreducingthispotentiallyoverlooked
problem.
Languagebarrierscancausegapsininformationavailabilityduringtheglobalcompilationofscientificknowledge,asscientific
informationisavailablenotonlyinEnglishbutalsoinmanyotherlanguages.Wetriedtoestimatethenumberofconservation
relatedscientificdocumentspublishedintheworldsmajorlanguages.Searchingforscientificdocumentspublishedin2014with
twokeywords,biodiversityandconservation,in16languagesonGoogleScholargenerated75,513manuscripts,ofwhich
Englishwasbyfarthemostfrequentlyusedlanguage(48,600scientificdocuments,64.4%),followedbySpanish(9,520),
Portuguese(7,800),simplifiedChinese(4,540),andFrench(2,290)(Fig1).Theother11languagessurveyedwereusedinatotal
of2,763documents(seeS1Tableformoredetail).Byfurtherinvestigating95sampledocumentsfromthoseobtainedusing
Spanishterms(thesamplesizewasvalidatedbythesample.size.propfunctioninRpackagesamplingbook,assumingthe
expectedproportionwasP=0.48[i.e.,theactualproportionofSpanishonlydocuments],afinitesmallpopulationcorrectionofN=
1/4/2017 Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science
9,520,precisione=0.1,andconfidencelevel=0.95),weconfirmedthatallbutonedocumentwasindeedwritteninSpanish.
Furthermore,46(48%ofthe95)ofthesedocumentsprovidedneitherthetitlenortheabstractinEnglish(Fig2A).Theresultwas
similarwhenweinvestigated80sampledocumentsfromthoseobtainedusingJapaneseterms(thesamplesizewasdeterminedin
thesamewaybutwithN=474)35%ofthosedocumentsprovidedneitherthetitlenortheabstractinEnglish(Fig3A).Assuming
similarproportionsapplytootherlanguages,theseresultssuggest:(1)mostofthe35.6%scientificdocumentswritteninanon
EnglishlanguagecannotbeunderstoodfullywithouttherelevantnonEnglishlanguageskills,and(2)uptohalfofthenonEnglish
scientificdocumentsare,intheory,unsearchableusingEnglishkeywords.Moreover,havingEnglishtitlesandabstractsmaynot
sufficeofthe6peerreviewedpaperspublishedinJapanesebythefirstauthorofthispaper(allwithanEnglishtitleand3alsowith
anEnglishabstract),4werenotsearchableusingtheirEnglishtitlesonGoogleScholar,norweretwosearchableonWebof
Science.All6,however,appearedonGoogleScholarwhensearchedusingtheirJapanesetitles.GoogleScholarsearchescan
includegreyliterature(usuallynotpeerreviewed).However,ofthe46SpanishdocumentswithneitheranEnglishtitlenoran
Englishabstract,overhalf(26)werejournalarticles,books,ortheses(Fig2B)andthusareexpectedtohavescientificcredibility.
Similarly,43%(12)ofthe28JapanesedocumentswithneitheranEnglishtitlenoranEnglishabstractwerejournalarticles(Fig
3B).ThisproportionwashigherinthosedocumentswithanEnglishtitleand/oranEnglishabstractinbothlanguages(Figs2Cand
3C).WhilesomeofthesenonEnglishjournalsmightnotnecessarilybecommittedtopublishingpapersofreasonablequality[5],
therearealsowellestablishedjournalsthatregularlypublishanonnegligiblenumberofpeerreviewedpapersonbiodiversity
conservationinnonEnglishlanguages(seeexamplesinS1Table).Thesameistrueforscientificdata:global(i.e.,Englishbased)
biodiversitydatabasesstorefewerdatafromcountrieswithfewerEnglishspeakers[6],butthiscouldbepartlybecausedatafrom
thosecountriesarenotnecessarilyavailableinEnglish.Forexample,over4millionrecordsonspeciesoccurrenceand
abundance,includingover1millionbasedonmonitoringsurveysorganizedbytheMinistryoftheEnvironmentinJapan,are
availableonline(http://ikilog.biodic.go.jp/)butcurrentlyonlyinJapanese.

Fig1.Waffleplotofthenumberofscientificdocumentsin2014alonebasedonasearchwithtwokeywordsbiodiversityand
conservationin16majorlanguagesonGoogleScholar.
Eachsquarerepresents50documents.Theflagsmerelyrepresentthelanguageofeachdocument,notwherethework
originated.SeeS1Tableformoredetail.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.g001

Fig2.Waffleplotsof(A)theuseofanEnglishtitleandanEnglishabstractin94scientificdocumentswritteninSpanish(sampledfromthe
9,520documentssearchedinFig1)documenttypesof(B)the46documentswithneitheranEnglishtitlenoranEnglishabstractand(C)those
withanEnglishtitleand/oranEnglishabstract.
Eachsquarerepresentsonedocument.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.g002
1/4/2017 Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science
Fig3.Waffleplotsof(A)theuseofanEnglishtitleandanEnglishabstractin80scientificdocumentswritteninJapanese(sampledfromthe
474documentssearchedinFig1)documenttypesof(B)the28documentswithneitheranEnglishtitlenoranEnglishabstractand(C)those
withanEnglishtitleand/oranEnglishabstract.
Eachsquarerepresentsonedocument.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.g003

Infact,theconsequencesofignoringnonEnglishsciencemaybemoreseriousthanmerelylackingaccessto36%ofexisting
informationitcancausebiasesandgapsinourunderstandingoftheglobalenvironment.Onepotentialbiasinsystematicreviews
ofEnglishlanguagejournalsistheoverrepresentationofpositiveand/orstatisticallysignificantresults[7],astheyaremorelikely
tobepublishedinhighimpactEnglishjournals.Anothertypeofbias,ofparticularrelevancetoenvironmentalsciences,isthat
informationonspecies,habitats,ecosystems,andphenomenathatarespecifictocountrieswhereEnglishisnotthemothertongue
canbeoverlookedwhensearchedonlyinEnglish,asalsoreportedinmedicalsciences[5].Asanexample,thelatestestimatesof
populationstatusinTaiwanforfairypittas(Pittanympha),abirdspeciesofconservationconcern,areavailableonlyintraditional
Chinese(http://www.wracb.gov.tw/public/DownLoads/20157161639457055.pdf)andnotusedintheglobalassessmentbythe
InternationalUnionforConservationofNature(ChieJenKo,personalcommunications).Similarly,importantpapersreportingthe
infectionofpigswithavianinfluenzavirusesinChinainitiallywentunnoticedbyinternationalcommunities,includingtheWorld
HealthOrganizationandtheUnitedNationsFoodandAgricultureOrganization,becausetheywerepublishedinChineselanguage
journals[8].Also,thereisarecognizedknowledgegapabouttheeffectsonbiodiversityofsomecrops,suchassoybeans,
sorghum,andcotton[9],butconsideringthatthesecropsaregrownoverlargeareasinSouthAmericaandChina,scientific
literatureonthesecropsmayexistinthelocallanguagesoftheseregions.Finally,scientificknowledgegeneratedbythose
undertakingconservationactivitiesinthefield(fieldpractitioners)couldalsobeunderrepresentedinEnglish,asfieldpractitioners
oftenfinditachallengetohavetheirworkpublishedinacademicjournals[4],particularlyinEnglishiftheyarenonnativeEnglish
speakers[10].ThispotentiallyrenderslocalandindigenousknowledgeunavailableinEnglish.Forexample,WetlandsInternational
Argentinahasproducedover20technicalpublicationsontheconservationandmanagementofwetlandsoverthepast20years,
butonly2areavailableinEnglish(DanielE.Blanco,personalcommunications).TheirnonEnglishpublicationsincludeareporton
therolesofpeatlands,awetlandtypeofpotentialglobalimportance,inmitigatingclimatechangeimpacts
(http://lac.wetlands.org/Portals/4/Turberas/Factbook%20Turberas%20de%20TdF%202010.pdf).Suchknowledgegeneratedby
practitionersisoftenoverlookedasgreyliteraturebutformsavitalpartoftheevidencebase[10].Forinstance,theIPBEShas
recentlyshownthatlocalandindigenousknowledgeisakeytounderstandingtheconservationofecosystemservicesby
pollinators(http://www.ipbes.net/article/pressreleasepollinatorsvitalourfoodsupplyunderthreat).
Anotherconsequenceoflanguagebarriersthatisbecomingincreasinglyimportantoperatesintheoppositedirection:much
scientificknowledgeisnowunavailableinlocallanguages,aspublicationinEnglishhasbecomeprevalent.Afactorbehindthisis
thatevenscientistswhosemothertongueisnotEnglishaimtoproducepapersinEnglishforpublicationinhighimpactjournals
giventheclearadvantagesfortheircareers[11].Furthermore,manyjournals,previouslypublishedinlocallanguages,arenow
publishingmainlyinEnglishtoincreasetheirimpactsonscientificcommunitiesglobally(e.g.,AnimalBiodiversityandConservation
inSpain,Natureza&ConservaoinBrazil).Asaconsequence,thereexistsanimbalanceinknowledgetransferincountries
whereEnglishisnotthemothertonguemuchscientificknowledgethathasoriginatedthereandelsewhereisavailableonlyin
Englishandnotintheirlocallanguages.
TheincreaseintheproportionofconservationrelatedpaperspublishedinEnglishhashelpedglobalEnglishspeakingcommunities
accessabroaderrangeofinformationbut,atthesametime,potentiallyraisedthebarrierforlocalpractitionersandpolicymakers
whosemothertongueisnotEnglish.Leavingthisproblemunresolvedisuntenableifweconsiderthatareasexperiencingarapid
lossofbiodiversityandthusinthegreatestneedofinformation,education,andconservationpracticesareoftenplaceswhere
Englishisnotspokenwidely[12].Thelastdecadehasseenanexplosionofpapersurgingconservationcommunitiestotackle
researchimplementationgaps(e.g.,[13]),butlanguagebarrierscanfurtherwidenthesegaps.Conservationscienceneedsto
deliverlocallevel,speciesspecificevidencetoonsitepractitionersandpolicymakers,butmanypractitionersoftenfindlanguagea
barrierwhenaccessingprimaryscientificinformation[4,11].Forexample,oursurveywith44nationalandregionalprotectedareas
inSpainrevealedthat54%ofthedirectors(13outofthe24whorespondedtooursurvey)identifiedlanguagesasabarriertothe
useofscientificpapersasaninformationsourceformanagement.Thus,althoughtheextentofsuchlanguagebarriersshouldvary
amongcountriesandindividuals,dependingontheirproficiencyinEnglish,simplyprovidingscientificknowledgeineasily
understandableandaccessibleways,butinEnglish,mightnotmakeadifferenceformanypractitionersandpolicymakers.
Transcendinglanguagebarriersrequiressocietal,institutional,andindividuallevelchanges.Weshouldnotassumethatall
importantinformationisavailableinEnglish.Whenconductingsystematicreviewsordevelopingdatabasesataglobalscale,one
simple,yetrarelyadopted,solutionwouldbetoincludeinthediscussionspeakersofawiderangeoflanguages(e.g.,atleast
Spanish,Portuguese,Chinese,andFrench,which,intheory,altogethercoverthevastmajorityofnonEnglishscientificdocuments
Fig1).Particularlyininfluentialglobalassessments,likethosebytheIPBES,scientificliteraturepublishedinnonEnglish
languagesshouldbeequallyconsideredand,ifappropriate,included.Weobviouslyneedtoensurethequalityofliteraturetobe
includedinsuchassessmentsinvolvingnativespeaker(s)ofeachlanguagewouldalsofacilitatethisprocess.Tothisend,the
websiteConservationEvidence.comisestablishinganinternationalpaneltoextractnonEnglishlanguagepapersonconservation
interventions.Insituationsinwhichthisapproachisimpractical,theuseofnonEnglishsearchtermswouldhelpidentifyrelevant
nonEnglishliterature,althoughitisstillnotacommonpractice.WealsosuggestdevelopingadatabaseofmajornonEnglish
journalsinthediscipline(apartiallistisshowninS1Tableforconservationscience).Suchadatabasecanbeaccompaniedbythe
registrationofinvestigatorsworkingonaparticulartopicsothatevennonindexedworkscanbeshared,assuggestedand
implementedinmedicalsciences[5,14],andrelevantpaperscanbedisseminatedinEnglishvia,forexample,SocialNetwork
Services.AuthorsofnonEnglishlanguagepaperscouldalsotrytoincreasethevisibilityoftheirpapersbyuploadingpreprintsor
postprintswiththetitlesandabstractsinEnglishonwellrecognizedonlinerepositories(seebelow).
AkeytofacilitatingtheapplicationofscientificknowledgeexpressedinEnglishtolocalenvironmentalissuesismultilingualization
oftheknowledge.WhileEnglishplaysacrucialroleinthecurrentpublishingsystemsbycentralizingscientificknowledge,wealso
needasystemforeffectivelyredistributingthecompiledknowledgetoitsusers.Weproposethatallauthorsberequestedto
providelaysummarieswhenpublishingtheirpapersinrelevantconservationjournals.Thejournalscouldthenprovidetranslations
ofthosesummariesinmultiplelanguages.Thiswoulddramaticallyincreaseaccessibilitytoscientificknowledgeforpractitioners
1/4/2017 Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science
andpolicymakers,asknowledgeisprovidedregularlyataspecificlocation(s)inaneasilyunderstandableway.Itwouldbeeven
moreinfluentialifmajorjournalsinthesubjectareacouldestablishacommonwebsite.Translationcostscouldbecoveredbyeither
journalsorauthorsdependingonfundingavailability,inthesamewaythatseveralopenaccessjournalsofferfullorpartialwaivers
toovercomeanyfinancialbarrierstopublication.Another,thoughlessinfluential,approachistoencourageindividualresearchers
toprovidetranslationsoftheirpapers,forexample,assupportinginformationoftheoriginalEnglishpapers(PLOSjournalsand
ConservationBiologyallowthis[15,16]seeS1S5AbstractsforthelaysummaryofthispaperinSpanish,Portuguese,French,
simplifiedChinese,andJapanese)orthroughselfarchivingoninstitutionalorotherrepositoriesunderappropriatecopyright
conditions.Forinstance,submissionsinmultiplelanguagesandtranslationsofpreviouslypublishedworkareacceptedinarXiv
(https://arxiv.org/help/faq/multilang,http://arxiv.org/help/translations),figshare(confirmedon23February2016),andPeerJ
(confirmedon15March2016).Forthetranslationofscientificbooks,asuccessfulbusinessmodelhasalreadybeenproposed[12],
whichcouldbeadoptedwidely.
Whileoutreachactivitieshaverecentlybeenadvocatedinscience,itisstillrareforsuchactivitiestoinvolvecommunicationacross
languagebarriers.Institutionscouldgivecredittoeffortsbyresearcherstotranslatetheirfindingsintolocallanguagesinasimilar
waytohowotheroutreachactivitiesareevaluated,particularlyiftheresearchcoversissuesattheglobalscaleorregionswhere
Englishisnotthemothertongue.Fundingbodiesandsocietiescanencourageresearcherstousetheirfundingfor
multilingualizationplanstoovercomelanguagebarriers,whereappropriate,canbeacriterionforevaluatingoutreachactivitiesin
grantproposals(e.g.,theBritishEcologicalSocietysOutreachGrantsandtheNationalScienceFoundationsBroaderImpacts
ReviewCriterion).AsfacilitatingthetranslationofEnglishknowledgetoalocallanguagecanbenefitthelocalcommunity,thiscould
alsoattracttheattentionoflocalfunders[12].
Languagebarrierscontinuetoimpedetheglobalcompilationandapplicationofscientificknowledge.Overcomingthisproblemis
notaneasychallenge,butwhenachievedshouldhavefarreachingbenefitstobothscientistsandusersofscientificinformationin
tacklingglobalenvironmentalchangesandsolvinglocalenvironmentalissues.Webelievetheapproachesdescribedhereoffer
potentialpracticalsolutions.

SupportingInformation

S1Table.Numberofscientificdocumentsin16languages.

doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.s001
(DOCX)

S1Abstract.AlternativeLanguageAbstractinSpanish.

doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.s002
(DOCX)

S2Abstract.AlternativeLanguageAbstractinPortuguese.

doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.s003
(DOCX)

S3Abstract.AlternativeLanguageAbstractinFrench.

doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.s004
(DOCX)

S4Abstract.AlternativeLanguageAbstractinsimplifiedChinese.

doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.s005
(DOCX)

S5Abstract.AlternativeLanguageAbstractinJapanese.

doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.s006
(DOCX)

Acknowledgments
Thankstoourcolleaguesfortheiradviceonpublicationsinlocallanguagesandopinionsonlanguagebarriers:J.M.Ochoa
Quintero(SpanishandPortuguese),V.ZamoraGutierrez,D.E.Blanco(Spanish),I.Catry(Portugese),M.Chen(simplified
Chinese),J.L.Martin,M.Somveille,A.S.BonnetLebrun(French),A.Basset,I.Rosati,N.Baccetti(Italian),J.Schleicher(German
andFrench),S.LeeandH.Park(Korean),L.Svensson(Swedish),C.J.Ko(traditionalChinese),H.Ambarli(Turkish),P.Skorka
(Polish),E.Nourani(Persian),I.Khorozyan(Russian),andS.Duijns(Dutch).WealsothanktheprotectedareadirectorsinSpain
whorespondedtooursurveyandM.Amanoforallthesupport.

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